One of the books I found, and have subsequently been re-reading - one of the hazards of selling books as a book-lover is the painful inability to part with some titles, at least not without reading or re-reading them first - is a slightly battered paperback edition of "Exile's Return: a literary odyssey of the 1920s" by Malcolm Cowley, first published in 1934.
Below is what I came across in "Exile's Return" last night, from page 110, and decided to post up on Raw Light, for the sake of interest and any thoughts that might follow, on the always thorny subject of reviewing poetry and being ambitious for one's own work - ignoring the typically sexist assumption of the time that any poet and/or reviewer must necessarily be male.
The comments below are roughly the same as those I have made myself, in other ways and with slightly different nuances, on poetry forums in the past, and been ridiculed for. What interests me is that I can find these sentiments in books on poetry, both in "Exile's Return" and numerous others I have come across over the years, yet when I voice the same ideas myself, I meet almost blanket disagreement from my peers. So, are those who disagree trying to hide something, from me or perhaps from themselves, or do they genuinely believe that thoughtful ambition and watchfulness in a poet is a Bad Thing?
Is it perhaps that contemporary poetry has turned away from the inherent romanticism of poetic ambition - as it was understood up until about the middle years of the twentieth century - in favour of a colder, slicker, and far more professional approach, one hedged about with serious workshop attendance and qualifications in Creative Writing, for instance? That a poet is no longer 'apprenticed to the Muse' as Malcolm Cowley puts it below, but is on a career path whose landmarks include an internet site, a blog, an MA programme, a few competition wins and the obligatory arts grant - the work itself, its deepest rigours and inspirations and origins, being no longer centre stage of a poet's career but a mere by-product of the process.
From p. 110, Exile's Return by Malcom Cowley:
If [a young poet] is called upon to review a book by Joyce or Eliot, he will say certain things he believes to be accurate: they are not the things lying closest to his heart. Secretly he is wondering whether he can, whether he should, ever be great in the Joyce or Eliot fashion. What path should he follow to reach this goal? The great living authors, in the eyes of any young man apprenticed to the Muse, are a series of questions, an examination paper compiled by and submitted to himself:
1. What problems do these authors suggest?
2. With what problems are they consciously dealing?
3. Are they my own problems? Or if not, shall I make them my own?
4. What is the Joyce solution to these problems (or the Eliot, the Pound, the Gertrude Stein, the Paul Valery solution)?
5. Shall I adopt it? Reject it and seek another master? Or must I furnish a new solution myself?
And it is as if the examiner had written: Take your time, young man. Consider all questions carefully; there is all the time in the world. Don't fake or cheat; you are making these answers for yourself. Nobody will grade them but posterity.